“Tattooing is like China”

By Doug Hardy on June 29, 2015
Studying with Bob Roberts, 12_02

May 15-17th, Kings Avenue Tattoo on Manhattan’s Bowery hosted a three-day event combining a book signing, talks, and pop-up show and sale of my paintings, prints, and drawings. Shop owner Mike Rubendall and his crew went all-out to make this a success, and videos of the events are up now on YouTube. I titled this series of events Pictures of the Gone World, a phrase taken from San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first published book, 1955 (the year I got obsessed with tattooing). In Beat Generation parlance, “gone” was used approvingly as transcendent, not “done with” or “over.” Beat generation thought, art, and writings—with strong Asian roots—had a big impact on me in my formative years. I thought the title was also appropriate since tattoos are guaranteed to be a transient art form—although, as in the classic 60s biker memorial tattoo design for fallen comrades says, G.B.N.F.—gone but not forgotten.

From Tattoo City, Jen Lee, Mary Joy Scott and Doug Hardy tattooed both custom designs and images from my “kiddy flash”, pencil drawings done when I was 10-12 years old. About 20 sheets of that original flash was up on display. Trevor Ewald handled art and book sales all three days. Friday afternoon was a book signing featuring the newest Hardy Marks publication, Lew the Jew Alberts—Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings. Lew was an influential tattooer who worked on the Bowery 100 years ago. It was fitting to bring them back home, with honors. Also, New Yorkers Mike McCabe and Ruth Marten, my long-time friends and fellow artists, signed copies of their books: Mike’s New York City Tattoo—a history of the scene before tattooing was banned from 1961 until 1997. Ruth brought Unvarnished Truth, her 1913 catalog of amazing works shown at Van der Grinten Gallery in Koln, Germany. Check out both Mike and Ruth’s works online.

Saturday morning I gave a talk focused on the “back story” of how my art developed and is linked with tattooing and in other mediums—printmaking, painting, ceramics, and drawing. It focused on a great number of visuals and art history, outside of the topic of tattooing. The presentation began with a 4 minute + mashup I created with the help of the video team—“Split Personality”—featuring about 100 personal shots from my history interspersed with a rare tape of my 1981 appearance on the popular TV game show To Tell the Truth.

Sunday morning, Ruth, Mike and I gave an informal talk about the changing downtown cultural scene, and tattooing, in late ‘70s New York. Ruth was one of the first women tattooers during that period—and one with a fine arts background and education. Both talks were sold out, but the video of my presentation, as well as a short collage of the entire weekend, is now up on YouTube. The Sunday panel will be available when all appropriate visuals are imported— check this site for updates.

Overall, it was an amazing weekend, with high enthusiasm all around. It really reinforced my awareness of, and appreciation for the caliber of most people now deeply involved with tattooing. It is a huge change from when I first became involved 60 years ago, and even the late 60s when I actually began practicing. I always believed in its potential as a positive expression somehow mysteriously innate to certain members of our species, but it’s gone far beyond anything I could imagine. In my journal in the late 1970s, I wrote about transforming tattooing:
Like wrestling a heavy appliance up several narrow flights of stairs to a place where it will serve its function.
Now we have begun to reach that place.

I wrapped up my presentation with the following passage from another journal, written in 2001 when I was on an LA trip. It’s time to make public some of the internal thoughts and images behind my images.

D.E. Hardy

Santa Monica
Comfort Inn, rm. 216
3:40 a.m.
Monday, 17 December
End of 2001

1. Tattooing is like China
2. Tattooing is my China
(Secondary illumination [bank shot] while refining title: Cockney rhyming slang: China= China plate= mate)

Yesterday over at Bob Roberts all afternoon in the vortex of his house
Incredible glittering iron velocity of his paintings
deep conversation, apple juice and secondary smoke
Walk to L.A. County Museum looking for Chinese paintings
we look around China & Japan & then to bookstore I find one
The Path of Beauty—A Study of Asian Aesthetics (pub. Beijing ’99)

Reading a short time before helpless drowsiness at 9 p.m. this book
starts neolthic all the way back really talking the real
and waking up about two thinking about the enormity of China
& its records & all various arts & peoples
all under big category CHINA
then thinking tattooing is like China vast & ancient & complicated
and when you are part of it—you choose it or it chooses you—
you can never get rid of it and it flavors and defines you
like it or not
mysterious beautiful sublime & ugly terrible shameful it
just keeps shifting & catching you up like weather going over
or being in the sea

to people not of or from this place it is impossible to convey
& they may either gawk or friendly curious or hostile
because it is of course exotic
so you have to (por vida) deal with the thousands of
questions comments attitudes & platitudes
but in the end you don’t really care because you’re part of
for better or worse

They all try to get a grip on it & the dam books, articles, etc. etc.
will probably keep coming out til the kaos come home
These days I say I’m sick of it but still can’t keep these
thoughts spinning out & wonder
if I might just give up graciously & accept it

on the edge of 57 & still spend an embarrassing amount of
time trying to locate my “original nature”
(at least it’s a distinguished and well-trod path)
resenting that the first thing they see is the ink in my skin
it blinds them (sometimes temporarily, until
the sound comes on)
but isn’t that what i wanted?
(cf. “be careful what you wish for you might get it)

I don’t mind that I am in CHINA & oughta be
more grateful to be a tiny ant among millions
throughout history sharing this
it’s just — hell — I dunno — when the Outside Observers
perceive it as All One Thing, geography & language
unifying it (shared carbon in cells & temporary pain)
they just have no i-dea
and trying to tidy it up in a blanket package
leads to trouble
like the commies

But actually, that’s not my worry, not my yob
and I was born a crusader but been crusadin’ too long
and need to relax and remember that
when I’m with my cronies (me old chinas)
like Bob & Malone & a coupla others
I am at ease with my people, talking story
about all the crazy characters past & present in this
crazy bizness
Sailor Jerry Painless Nell Old Doc Webb Hong Kong Tom
piracy treachery hilarity drug-ruined lives
money & sex
linked & saved with gossamer webs of infinite aesthetics
elusive ineffable & transcendent artistry
the actual methods & strategies of which are impossible to
relate (pin down)

Eating with Bob last night a spicy feast at
Genghis Cohen on Fairfax (ah, L.A.)
his booming voice biker shades & heavily tattooed arms
a piquant counterpoint to our casual upscale fellow diners

We discuss biker justice, Chinese rocks, tight &
loose painting, many many things
above all, how to access & express those channels
we know are in us

The painting is the thing but it has to coexist with the tattooing
I should be glad I have it all & forget about
what others think
we are in a Chinese opera, saying the old lines, in the
spectacular old costumes, making the old
histrionic gestures
our crashing wailing hallucinatory brightness is not
for everyone
hell it drives some people crazy
but we have our audience (always will)
inscrutable comrades

*The designs of human heads on painted pottery unearthed at Mejiayao appear to be examples of “cropped hair and tattooing”, but such were not for purposes of beauty or ornamentation. They had primarily an important ritual significance. The desire to beautify material objects appeared even later than the desire to beautify the human body. (Meijiayao—Neolithic culture 3000-2000 b.c.)
—The Path of Beauty, p. 33 “The Era of Dragons and Phoenixes”

4:45 a.m.